William Saturno was hot, frustrated, low on food, low on water, and low
on patience when he sought shade in a trench dug by looters at the San
Bartolo archaeological site deep inside the Guatemalan jungle.
The arduous two-day trip there to document carved Mayan hieroglyphics
had been in vain. The palace complex held 80-foot-tall pyramids, ball
courts, and other structures, but no hieroglyphics. The exhausting trip
back through the jungle awaited.
Saturno, a researcher for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and
Ethnology and lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, explored the
trench as his guides searched for water. A few moments later, his
flashlight beam revealed what may be one of the greatest finds in Mayan
archaeology, a 1,900-year-old depiction of a religious ceremony
involving the maize god.
“I shined my light on the wall and I was suddenly less irritated.”
Saturno said. “As soon as I saw the mural, I thought ‘This is extremely
Though rubble filling the building still hides perhaps 90 percent of
the painting, enough is exposed to see it is quite large, it’s in
excellent shape, and it probably dates to 100 A.D. That would mean it
was painted during a period of rapid change, during the transition from
the Preclassic to the Classic Period, when Mayan civilization reached
its peak. That also means it is 700 years older than the only other
Mayan wall painting known, a large depiction of Mayan battle scenes
discovered in 1946 at Bonampak in Mexico.
“If what we see there is any indication, this’ll be one of the great
finds in Mayan archaeology,” said David Stuart, Bartlett Curator of
Mayan Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum.